In Defence of Lawrence Alma-Tadema

On a recent visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I admired the fine details of the painting A Juggler, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. This painting shows the figure of an Egyptian juggler performing in front of an audience of patricians in the peristyle of a villa in Pompeii. As I stood in front of the painting, observing the careful rendition of the villa’s interior, its murals, architectural details and furniture, I asked myself the question “Why has it become embarrassing to admit that you like Alma-Tadema’s paintings?” There are some obvious answers to that question, for instance Alma-Tadema’s obsession with subjects from Classical Antiquity and his idealistic treatment of these subjects. But there are many other 19th century artists whose work could be criticised in the same way but whose reputation hasn’t suffered in the same way as Alma-Tadema’s (Frederic Lord Leighton anyone?).

Even though Alma-Tadema was extremely popular in his lifetime, his work fell out of favour after his death in 1912. As the avant-garde emerged, there was no place for Alma-Tadema’s ‘pretty pictures’ in the art world anymore. But surely we are now in a position where we can appreciate 20th century Modernism without feeling the need to reject everything that came before its advent. There are also some who say that Alma-Tadema’s art is vacuous, that it has nothing to say, but following this line of thinking couldn’t the whole Aesthetic Movement and its precept of “art for art’s sake” be discounted on similar grounds? Admittedly, the fact that some Hollywood producers used Alma-Tadema’s paintings as the basis for the design of their movie sets (most notoriously, Cecil B. DeMill for The Ten Commandments) would not have encouraged art scholars and academics to take his work seriously. But the finely crafted details in Alma-Tadema’s works are a testament to the extent of the archaeological research he must have conducted to design his paintings, and it is unfair to discredit an artist on account of who endorses his work after his death. Nobody rejects the Pre-Raphaelites for the reason that Andrew Lloyd Webber is an ardent collector of their works (or do they?).

Perhaps what Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s reputation needs the most is a retrospective exhibition, to let the works speak for themselves once again and enable a new audience to discover his wonderful visions of an idealised antiquity.

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A Yoko Ono Survey Exhibition at the MCA – War Is Over! (If You Want It)

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There is no need to introduce Yoko Ono, most people will know her as the wife of the late John Lennon, her art however is somehow less familiar. Being sometimes in two minds with regards to conceptual art, I originally approached War Is Over! (If You Want It), a five-decade-spanning survey of Ono’s work at the MCA, cautiously. I should not have worried, the exhibition turned out to be a complete success.

I wasn’t aware of the participatory nature of Yoko Ono’s work before visiting War Is Over! (If You Want It) and was therefore pleasantly surprised by Play It By Trust, one of the many participatory works featured in the exhibition. This work invites visitors to play a game of chess, the pieces however differ from the standard black and white sets, in this game both players play with white pieces. The idea behind the work is to eliminate the principles of competition and opposition from the game, indeed it is only possible to play for as long as each player can remember which pieces are his or hers.

Another work relying on audience participation is My Mommy Is Beautiful, a wall on which visitors can stick a note addressed to their mother. The many notes vary in tone and range, from the comic to the sad, visitors can read declarations of love, expressions of regret and many other emotions. If it somehow sounds naïve when written down, the actual work is extremely touching.

Yoko Ono also deals with the violence inflicted upon women and their body in Touch Me III, this work consists of silicone body parts in wooden casings, after wetting their fingers viewers are asked to touch the various ‘body’ parts. This work serves as a reminder of the plight and suffering of women all around the world.

I won’t detail every work in the exhibition so as to leave some things for you to discover when you attend it. Suffice to say that in a world where conceptual art sometimes basks in its own vacuous self-importance, Yoko Ono’s work, its participatory nature and her message of peace come as a breath of fresh air and will have you reflecting on important issues in the most accessible and unpretentious way.

There is only a little bit more than a month left to catch War Is Over! (If You Want It) so put on your shoes and run to the MCA as soon as you can!

War Is Over! (If You Want It) is on at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia until 23 February 2014.

Art Gallery of NSW brings America to Sydney

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America: Painting a Nation is the latest exhibition in the excellent Sydney International Art Series, which brought us Francis Bacon: Five Decades last year. This new exhibition offers to chart the development of American painting through the history of the United States from the 18th century to the mid 20th century. This means a very broad selection of themes and styles, from early portraits to the triumph of abstract expressionism.

The paintings are arranged in chronological order. The first few rooms contain portraits of Native Americans and early settlers, encounters between their respective cultures and sweeping landscapes. We then shift to more social concerns with portrayals of everyday scenes of labour and family life in rural surroundings.

In the next room two stunning society portraits particularly stand out, one by John Singer Sargent and the other by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. They were part of a generation of American artists who established themselves in Europe, where they encountered immense success.

Arguably one of the most remarkable paintings in this exhibition, Edward Hopper’s House at Dusk is a perfect example of the sense of isolation and the tension between nature and manmade structures that characterise most of his work.

One of the effects of urbanisation on American art was for artists to embrace modernist styles as a way to express the exhilarating pace of life in the metropolis.

The exhibition concludes with abstract expressionism works by, among others, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, from a time when America rose to the forefront of the art world.

With such variety of subjects and styles there is much for everyone to admire in this exhibition. If you are not convinced yet, ask yourself: “when am I going to see again on Australian soil an exhibition that gathers works by Cassat, Hopper, Pollock, Rothko, Sargent and Whistler?” That’s right: not in a very, very long time.

America: Painting a Nation is on at The Art Gallery of NSW until 9 February 2014.

In Praise of the East Front of the Louvre

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During a recent visit to my hometown of Paris I was able to admire one of my favourite buildings: the Louvre, and more specifically its splendid and often overlooked east front.

This baroque façade never fails to impress me with its elegance and its beauty. A central arch crowned by a pediment, linked on either side to two pavilions by a magnificent colonnade. There is a beautiful sense of rhythm and harmony between the different elements, emphasised by the pairs of Corinthian columns and the mirroring pilasters on the wall behind them.

Originally designed as the main entrance to the Palace, this magnificent façade with its fine carvings is today largely ignored by visitors, as most of them approach the Louvre from its west side, where the pyramid stands. If you haven’t already admired it, make sure you do next time you are in Paris, I will accept complaints on this page if you are not suitably impressed.